The inexorable rise of electronics in our cars raises the question: how much automotive electronics is too much?
Like the old joke about art, I don't know much about user interfaces but I know what I like. And I don't like some of the user interfaces showing up in cars.
It's true that the electronic content of automobiles is rising rapidly, and that's good news for both semiconductor vendors and the average driver. In-car electronics improve fuel mileage, increase reliability, aid servicing, add convenience, improve safety -- you name it.
But with any rapid rise, it's possible to overshoot the top and go to far. And I suspect a few automakers have gone a wee bit too far.
A good user interface, regardless of whether it's in a car or a computer or a toaster, relies on a person's natural ability to remember locations. We remember where the buttons are on the blender, not what those buttons are labeled. We operate the TV remote by feel, not by sight. And except for beginners, even lousy typists don't really read the letters on the keys, they reach for familiar locations.
This same fundamental principle once applied to car radios, cruise control, seat adjustments, and all the other buttons and dials that festoon the average dashboard. Until now.
More recently, some automakers have replaced all the buttons and dials with a single joystick (or equivalent) that does it all. That's fine from an engineer's point of view but it's a miserable user interface for the average driver.
We can't read menus while we're driving, and twirl-and-click user interfaces don't have "locations" we can remember. Ever wonder why the graphical user interface that works on a desktop PC doesn't work in a car?
Using Windows or MacOS, we remember where menus are located on the screen, not what they're labeled. After a few days, we don't really read the menus any more; we remember where they're located. Our mouse hand naturally reaches for a position in space, not the words "File" or "Options."
When I started a job in Germany many years ago, I could operate the PC on my desk no problem, even though the Windows menus were all written in German (which I had only just started to learn). The words weren't important; their position was. I grew accustomed to the German version of Windows in no time.
In contrast, I never got used to the European keyboard with the Q and Z keys swapped. Even after several years, I still can't make myself reach up for the letter Z.
Those same fundamentals should inform the design of automotive user interfaces, but they haven't. Much as I admire BMW, its iDrive system (and other makers' similar technology) is a prime example of engineers' enthusiasm overtaking common sense. With no buttons to memorize, each encounter with iDrive is an exploratory trip. There's none of the spatial feedback we unconsciously need. iDrive would be great for a desktop computer; not so great for a moving vehicle.
I've got a pre-iDrive BMW (a 1985 740i) and I must say, I like all the buttons. The big assortment can be intimidating at first, but it's surprising how quickly (and unconsciously) you get accustomed to them all. Now I can reach for the radio, the air conditioner, the heater, the trip computer, and so on -- all without thinking about it.
And that's supposed to be the point.